Wouldn’t it be nice if all new TV shows were anthologies? Except for the very superior ongoing dramas and comedies, what if every show kept to an eight- or 10-episode arc that wrapped itself up and then, with its creators and some of its repertory cast in tow, moved on to an entirely different story? Viewers could then dip in and out, depending on whether the current story grabs them.
On FX, Ryan Murphy and his colleagues have most clearly demonstrated the appeal of this format with “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story” and “Feud.” The anthology format favors intensity, creativity and completion. Best of all, there’s no obligation on the viewer’s part to go back and watch past seasons and then commit to the next one. It’s the ideal way to tell stories in a world of much-too-much TV.
If such a revolution came, it might look a little like what’s new on cable this week, starting with Discovery’s eight-episode “Manhunt: Unabomber” (premiering Tuesday), the network’s attempt to break into prestige scripted dramas. “Manhunt” reaches for some of the rejuvenating spark between old news and classic tragedy that viewers loved in FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” the first in the “American Crime Story” brand (upcoming seasons of which will recount Gianni Versace’s murder and the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina).
There’s also USA’s instantly gripping “The Sinner” (premiering Wednesday), which is based on German writer Petra Hammesfahr’s best-selling novel about a woman (Jessica Biel) who snaps and commits a heinous crime in public. “The Sinner” is also billed as the launch of an anthologized series, if it catches on; for now, the network touts it as an “eight-episode, close-ended series.” (Translation: Your time won’t be wasted here!)
Discovery’s “Manhunt” sputters efficiently along with serious intention, taking what in another era might have been a showy, two-hour, made-for-TV movie event and stretching it out a bit past its inherent interest level.
Framed as the story of deadly mail-bomber Ted Kaczynski’s ability to elude the FBI for 18 years, it focuses on a smart but inexperienced agent, Jim Fitzgerald (“Avatar’s” Sam Worthington), an ex-cop drawn to forensic profiling techniques, especially when it comes to the written word. Having impressed his superiors at Quantico, Fitz is put on the UNABOM investigation (only once do the characters attempt to explain one of the worst acronyms ever), which has come back to life after a recent spate of similar mail bombs and the delivery of a verbose manifesto from the bomber.
“Manhunt’s” context exploits a certain flavor of domestic terrorism that preoccupied the Justice Department in the decade before 9/11: Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, Unabomber — it’s all of a piece (“Glee’s” Jane Lynch delivers a fleeting but fittingly stalwart cameo as Attorney General Janet Reno). The dour tone ably contrasts the era’s paranoia with the rudimentary technological assets that agents were working with, parsing the manifesto with legal pads, photocopies and whiteboard diagrams rather than Windows 95.
“Manhunt” flashes between 1995, as Fitz becomes obsessed to the point of alienating his wife and kids, and 1997, when he is summoned back to the case to visit a wily Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) in prison and must try to persuade him to plead guilty rather than face trial.
Bettany plays Kaczynski mostly as the deranged mastermind; Worthington’s Fitz is a far more interesting character, an agent who is tempted to empathize with his prey’s antisocial, anti-technological screed. Both actors seem to yearn for more to work with.
“Ask yourself this question,” Kaczynski villain-splains to Fritz. “Why are these men in suits so desperate to prove that I’m crazy? I will tell you. It’s because they know that I’m right. I’m awake. They’re asleep and they’re terrified that they might have to wake up and turn off their cellphones, their TVs and video games, and they might have to face themselves the way that you and I have.”
Despite an alluring narrative — even news junkies may have forgotten some of the case’s more intriguing details, including the publication of Kaczynski’s 35,000-word manifesto in The Washington Post, a bizarre acquiescence that helped break the case — “Manhunt” is gummed up with inelegant writing, enough to worry the actors (including Chris Noth as a deputy FBI director) into desperate spates of arm-waving and yelling.
Later episodes are able to shed some of this awkwardness in favor of forward momentum. The manhunt in “Manhunt” grows more tense, but it’s never quite enough to keep viewers engaged. Who was the Unabomber? What made him tick?
Honestly, who cares anymore? Bring on the next “Manhunt.”
USA’s “The Sinner,” on the other hand, begins on an unflinching, shocking note and won’t let go. As Cora Tannetti, Biel plays a new mom who seems unhappy with the close confines of her small-town life: She manages the books at the air-conditioning supplier where her husband, Mason (“Girls’ ” Christopher Abbott), works with his father. Cora and Mason live next door to his parents; her mother-in-law watches the baby all day and fixes dinner each night for the whole family. The proximity is charming but claustrophobic.
Cora, Mason and the baby take a Saturday outing to the lake. While watching a man playfully wrestle with his girlfriend, Cora is triggered by a sudden flash of rage; she leaps up and stabs the man to death with a knife she had been using to cut slices of fruit. It’s a shocking and inexplicable act, portrayed with a bracingly bloody, unstylized swiftness. The dozens of witnesses to the crime include her stunned husband; Cora is taken to the local jail, where she immediately confesses and asks to be put away for life.
“The Sinner” bills itself as a why-dunit instead of a whodunit. Bill Pullman co-stars as Detectiv Harry Ambrose, one of those troubled, past-his-prime, but nevertheless dogged investigators who finds himself needing to know more about this case than what the basic evidence presents. What impulse drove Cora’s attack? What is she hiding? What does her husband know?
“The Sinner” directs all of its artistic energy toward the viewer’s empathy, which is a tricky place to be. Deglamorized and grief-stricken, Biel is immediately convincing as both a victim, of sorts, and a possibly psychotic murderer. A viewer can’t help but wonder where it goes from here.
With the security of the anthology format, that same viewer runs a far smaller risk of reaching an ending that would be purposefully ambiguous when producers angle for a Season 2 renewal.
It’s hard to think of a better solution to the peak-TV crisis than this. Viewers get higher-quality shows starring actors who might not otherwise be ready to commit to the prospect of multiple seasons. And the shows are manageable in terms of time and scope; you can take them or leave them without needing to invest in a broad epic with its own detours and complicated mythology. Writers and producers may not love it as much (nothing says job security like getting renewed for another season or two or three), but even here, anthology offers a gift: If you have to write only eight episodes, you have less chance of painting yourself into a corner, plot-wise. Which, lets face it, happens far too often to even the best TV series. Let’s hear it for the one-and-done.
Manhunt: Unabomber (two hours) premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Discovery.
The Sinner (one hour) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on USA.